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When free-spirited and charismatic teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins St. George's as a new art instructor, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) senses a kindred spirit. But Barbara is not the only one drawn to her. Sheba begins an illicit affair with one of her underage students and Barbara becomes the keeper of her secret. A story of loneliness, loyalty, envy and love, written by Patrick Marber (Closer), based on the novel What Was She Thinking? by Zoë Heller. Co-starring Bill Nighy. Original music by Philip Glass. Directed by Richard Eyre (Stage Beauty, Iris).

  Notes on a Scandal

It’s a canonical truth about movies—at least those made in the English language—that their central character must be sympathetic. In the words of studio executives, there must be someone to “root for.” This was lucidly demonstrated for me a few years ago when I was writing the screenplay for Iris. To me the story was an alluring one about enduring love between a celebrated novelist and a professor of English literature; to some executives (who included its eventual U.S. distributor) it was an unappetizing tale of an unknown English woman writer dying of Alzheimer’s disease, whose husband was a bumbling intellectual who bore the burden of the film’s narrative and the brunt of her illness. Was he, wondered a script executive, sufficiently “rootable?” Since Jim Broadbent won an Academy Award for impersonating him, I guess he was.

I’m haunted by a French film (the title eludes me) whose main character gloriously defies all the laws of rootability. A bourgeois married couple are obliged to give houseroom to the husband’s aging aunt who lives alone and needs care. She’s odious, a malicious, spiteful and selfish bitch. In an excruciatingly well-meaning manner, the couple try—and fail—to accommodate her malignant presence. In despair they advertise for a carer—a kind of nanny—to look after the aunt. The sole candidate is a sulky teenage girl, every bit as self-absorbed as the aunt, and an alliance develops between the two cantankerous souls. Against all expectations I found myself moved by their relationship, forced to concede their mutual need for companionship and recognize that unhappiness is often born out of abject and corrosive loneliness. They were no less human for not being “rootable.”

Something of that French film’s obdurate desire to keep faith with the audience by not making the leading character sympathetic was in my mind when making Notes on a Scandal. Judi Dench plays an acerbic school teacher, Barbara, who lives alone with only her diary (the “notes” of the title) and her cat for company. She becomes obsessed with a younger schoolteacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett), who is in her turn obsessed with a 15-year-old boy she teaches. Both women are trapped by their circumstances. Sheba lives out Chekhov’s adage “if you are afraid of loneliness don’t marry,” while Barbara perpetuates her solitary condition in her desperation to alleviate it.

We talk of loneliness, like disease, as if it’s something that happens to other people. We caricature them as desolate men in launderettes and porn shops, women with supermarket baskets stuffed with pet food and TV-dinners-for-one, widows and widowers counting the hours until dawn, Eleanor Rigbys waiting at the window, wearing the face that they keep in a jar by the door. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Oh, they’re just as likely to come from offices, night clubs—or even film sets—as they are from bed-sitting rooms and basement flats. They say that no one is more lonely than the person who loves themself, but it’s not true; that prize goes to the person who hates themself. All the lonely people, where do they all belong?